This month I was able to travel back to my Home and Native Land for an Alumni Awards Gala at my alma matter. It was an interesting chance to reflect back on who I was as a young student and how my life has changed since. My main takeaway from revisiting the campus was that the trees had all gotten a lot bigger! They also made this nifty little introductory video. If you’ve ever wanted to catch a glimpse of my workspace or home, this is your chance:
This weekend, we had an impromptu Last Unicorn party with my daughters and their similarly-unicorn-obsessed friend. We watched the movie, of course, but there was also dress-up and a tabletop RPG session, which I ran for them. My kids are 3 and 5 years old, and it can be challenging to teach certain board game mechanics to kids so young (especially when they can’t yet read). Over the last year, I’ve come up with a few rules that have helped games with young players.
We’ve been using the fantastic Mice and Mystics as our base game. I love it because it looks like Redwall and has pretty child-friendly theming: the scariest monsters they will encounter are giant spiders and centipedes.
Along the way, we’ve developed a few house rules that keep things moving for young kids. I thought they were worth passing along:
- Use a Dice Arena — kids are sloppy with dice, and this keeps things from knocking over board pieces. We use shallow Tupperware container, nothing fancy.
- Kids Get Unlimited Movement — Turns out it’s hard to explain to a three year old that her character can’t get far enough away from a Warrior Rat to stay alive. So now I let them move as far as they want. The monsters that I control have speed determined by dice.
- No Defense Rolls — Defense rolls are sort of counterintuitive because they’re passive — all it does is augment the aggressor’s damage. The game moves much faster if you just roll and apply damage without worrying about defense. (To simulate armor, just give more HP.)
- Re-Rolls and Healing — In Mice & Mystics, each die has a piece of “cheese,” which they can spend to use special powers. My kids can’t read the special power cards, so I just made a rule that they can always spend cheese to re-roll. This helps the kid with bad rolls to not get too discouraged. I would also let them spend the cheese to heal damage, which was essential because rule #3 meant monsters deal a LOT of damage!
- Add Candy — A recent change that was a BIG hit was to replace the little “cheese” tokens with mini-marshmallows, which they have to eat when they spend them. It actually created some serious “marshmallow test” drama wherein they had to decide between eating and saving this valuable resource.
- Stabilize Between Encounters — After each skirmish, I make the kids explore the room and always ensure that they discover a cache of marshmallows to heal themselves. This was also a way to make sure the player who was a little more harassed or left out had a chance to have a big win: they were the one who managed to find the hidden stash.
- Keep it Short — Tabletop RPGs often skew long, but I’ve found that a 30-40 minute session works best. Really, this is all about seeding a board game addiction, and the best way to do that is to leave them wanting more.
I get a fair number of letters from readers wanting to know when the next Peter Nimble adventure will be coming out. I don’t have any immediate plans to write another Peter story, so in the meantime, here are some books I *strongly* recommend to people who liked Peter Nimble. All three of these titles are packed with adventure, danger, wordplay, and just the right amount of silliness. Check them out!
MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT – by Caroline Carlson
From Goodreads: Pirates! Magic! Treasure! A gargoyle? Caroline Carlson’s hilarious novel is perfect for fans of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events and Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society. Hilary Westfield has always dreamed of being a pirate. She can tread water for thirty-seven minutes. She can tie a knot faster than a fleet of sailors, and she already owns a rather pointy sword. There’s only one problem: The Very Nearly Honorable Leage of Pirates refuses to let any girl join their ranks of scourges and scallywags. But Hilary is not the kind of girl to take no for answer. To escape a life of petticoats and politeness at her stuffy finishing school, Hilary sets out in search of her own seaworthy adventure, where she gets swept up in a madcap quest involving a map without an X, a magical treasure that likely doesn’t exist, a talking gargoyle, a crew of misfit scallywags, and the most treacherous—and unexpected—villain on the High Seas. Written with uproarious wit and an inviting storyteller tone, the first book in Caroline Carlson’s quirky seafaring series is a piratical tale like no other
THE GOBLIN’S PUZZLE – by Andrew Chilton
Brimming with dragons, goblins, and logic puzzles, this middle-grade fantasy adventure is perfect for readers who enjoyed The Princess Bride or Rump.
THE BOY is a nameless slave on a mission to uncover his true destiny.
THE GOBLIN holds all the answers, but he’s too tricky to be trusted.
PLAIN ALICE is a bookish peasant girl carried off by a confused dragon.
And PRINCESS ALICE is the lucky girl who wasn’t kidnapped.
All four are tangled up in a sinister plot to take over the kingdom, and together they must face kind monsters, a cruel magician, and dozens of deathly boring palace bureaucrats. They’re a ragtag bunch, but with strength, courage, and plenty of deductive reasoning, they just might outwit the villains and crack the goblin’s puzzle.
THE LUCK UGLIES – by Paul Durham
The Luck Uglies is the first in a tween fantasy-adventure trilogy brimming with legends come to life, a charming wit, and a fantastic cast of characters-and is imbued throughout with the magic of storytelling.
Strange things are happening in Village Drowning, and a terrifying encounter has Rye O’Chanter convinced that the monstrous, supposedly extinct Bog Noblins have returned.
Now Rye’s only hope is an exiled secret society so notorious its name can’t be spoken aloud: the Luck Uglies. As Rye dives into Village Drowning’s maze of secrets, rules, and lies, she’ll discover the truth behind the village’s legends of outlaws and beasts…and that it may take a villain to save them from the monsters.
The first in a series, The Luck Uglies is an altogether irresistible cross of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, Stefan Bachmann’s The Peculiar, and Chris Healy’s The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, overflowing with adventure, secrets, friendship, and magic.
This week I found myself briefly stranded without a book, and so I to re-read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. The book was published in 2013 to largely negative reviews. Reviewers seemed to have tired of his charmingly counterintuitive self-help busines-speak. Many rightly criticized the book for feeling disjointed … what begins as a motivational talk about entrepreneurs overcoming dyslexia soon migrates to much heavier topics, including child leukemia, civil rights, religious war in Northern Ireland, child abduction/murder, and even the Holocaust. The overall response from readers seemed to be that Gladwell was getting too lofty: better to stick with what you know.
Reading the book in 2017, however, I had a different reaction: the weakness of David and Goliath isn’t the heavy stuff, it’s the fluff at the beginning. (I would include the title among the fluff.) In 2017, the second half of the book is chilling. Nearly every example has profound resonance with the current state of the world. And it seems to go a long way toward explaining why many of the conflicts we find ourselves in are simply unwinnable. It is also a more personal book; Gladwell experienced a sort of personal religious conversion while writing it. Reading it this week, I was struck by how much more human and vulnerable the stories were. The question that rang through the final chapters was, for me, clear: Would you be willing to suffer the way these people have suffered?
Unlike Gladwell’s previous books, David and Goliath is unable to offer up a glib “takaway” that readers can apply at their next board meeting. I suspect a message as bleak as this had no real place in the (comparatively) optimistic world of 2013. But in 2017 the book feels almost therapeutic. It recognizes that there’s no easy hack to fixing certain kinds of conflicts. Instead it offers a different kind of message: it asserts that suffering creates people able to truly risk themselves in order to do what is right. In a world full of so much wrong, we need people like that. Those are what history will call heroes.
I have a lot of readers ask my why I write about characters with missing or dead parents. My jokey answer is “because then no one can ground them.” But the real answer is much more complicated. It has to do with how extreme loss conditions a person–preparing them to endure extreme pain in the future. My characters suffer over the course of their stories, and to me it seems more cruel to put an unscarred and unprepared person into such dire circumstances.
I’m grateful for this book because the next time someone asks the “Why Orphans?” question, I will have a better answer.
UNRELATED: Those who like Gladwell might enjoy his very excellent podcast series, Revisionist History. I especially enjoyed his episodes about the evolution of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and his exploration of Generous Orthodoxy.
I’ve just finished reading AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which is not a book for children. It is a sprawling, virtuosic chronicle about idealistic artists at the turn of the 20th century. The “main” character is based on real-life children’s author E Nesbit (named Olive Wellwood) and the book primarily concerns itself with Olive and her family. I’m a big Nesbit fan, so this book was fascinating.
The thing that most struck me in the book was the fate of Olive’s oldest and most beloved son, Tom. Tom is beautiful and smart and kind and innocent: he is presented as a character from a book caught in a harsh world. The novel shows Tom’s tragic decline as the victim of betrayal: abuse, cruelty, deception, parental infidelity, and (implied) addiction. But none of these are what kills Tom. Instead, it is his mother’s writing that drives him to suicide at the end of the book. Since he was a small child, Tom’s mother has been writing him a special storybook (“Tom Underground”) that was written just for him. As Tom grows up and becomes more and more troubled, these stories serve as a sort of life-line for him. But then his mother mines these private childhood stories in order to create a beautiful and successful stage play. Tom only discovers this on opening night, when he’s watching from the audience. Shortly after, he drowns himself.
The book has many disturbing elements, but this was the most disturbing by far: that the selfishness of Olive Wellwood in her writing harmed her son more than anything else. This mirrors a real-life tradition of authors publishing private stories originally created for/with children: Christopher Robin, Alice Liddell, the Davies Boys, etc. None of those children fared well in adulthood. I’ve never quite understood the nature of such trauma. Like many others, I have always assumed that there must be some other explanation for why the children grew up to be bitter and miserable. (There is no shortage of speculation about abuse.) But Byatt argues in The Children’s Book that commodifying and publicizing the private worlds of a child’s imagination is trauma enough.
Byatt forces readers to ask if the cost is too high. Yes, we have Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, but those masterworks came at the expense of real people’s happiness. I consider myself a loving father and husband, and I certainly do no conscious harm to my children. But I have always been unapologetic about using details from real life in my books–it’s all fair game if it serves the story. Byatt’s novel made me reconsider this long-held stance, which is no small thing.
This has been a painful and frightening week for a lot of people. At a time like this — when there such immediate need for change in the world — it feels hard to justify the work of writing children’s stories. What could be more frivolous? In many ways, my book Sophie Quire was about this very question. But in the time since I finished Sophie, the question has only plagued me more. What is the point of a children’s story? It’s a good time to remember GK Chesterton’s words:
I might add something to this, which is that it’s important to write children’s stories so that the next generation can know a monster when they see it.
Last week I flew to DC to sit down with Raymond Arroyo on his show The World Over. I met Raymond at the LA Times Festival of Books last spring, and he’s a great guy who asks good questions … a few of which caught me off guard! Check it out!
A few years back, I helped write a short film for the very talented Ryan Kravitz, who had traded in a successful career as an art director to take up animation. It’s finished and out in the world now (apparently having racked up a ton of accolades), so I thought I’d post the link here.
Just as note as we approach this holiday season: If you want a signed/personalized copy of one of my books, please call Classic Lines Bookshop. They are right down the road and keep my books in stock — which makes it pretty easy for me to swing by and sign things. Just give them a ring and let them know you want a signed book shipped to your address. (If you want it personalized, make sure to let them what name you want in the book!)
Hello friends! It’s been a while since my last update, and that’s because I’ve been busily finishing my next book! It’s a companion to my first novel, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. Here’s the amazing cover, drawn by Gilbert Ford:
The book comes out Spring 2016. It is without question the most monster-filled story I have ever written. Here’s the summary from the catalog: